Tech-Savvy Law Librarians for the New Era

This submission is part of a column swap with the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) bimonthly member magazine, AALL Spectrum. Published six times a year, AALL Spectrum is designed to further professional development and education within the legal information industry. Slaw and the AALL Spectrum board have agreed to hand-select several columns each year as part of this exchange. 

The role of the law librarian continues to evolve in exciting and challenging ways. In the mid-2000’s, we saw many librarians in the law firm and corporate world expand their work beyond traditional legal research to include responding to marketing and business development requests. The work of legal research began to encompass what we now call competitive intelligence (CI), with a significant focus on current awareness. Helping attorneys build their book of business, monitoring industry trends, and providing information for client meetings and pitches is now an integral part of our work. Over the past 20 years, there has been increasing interest in and focus on knowledge management (KM), and in many cases this has come under the purview of the library. If not strictly a library function, many law librarians now have direct roles in working with knowledge management attorneys and IT personnel to harness a firm’s internal knowledge through systems and search tools. The latest shift in our role as law librarians has been to be formally tasked with overseeing, understanding, and implementing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools and data analytics. These resources are now a key part of how we both conduct research and provide information to internal and external clients.

Many will say we have always been involved in KM; it just didn’t have the label or formal definition it has now. But this move to integrate data and analytics—the need to understand AI and how it works—represents yet another expansion of our skill set. Importantly, it also provides an opportunity for us to be at the forefront of providing a full suite of services to our patrons. By embracing these new tasks and roles as legal technologists, law librarians can continue to be seen and grow as thought leaders and key advisors to our many types of clients and patrons.

Relationship Building

As law librarians, our roles touch many aspects of our firms, organizations, and schools. We provide education, training, support, and services to attorneys, students, professors, secretaries, CIOs, the general public, judges, and more. Building relationships with others in order to work on collaborative efforts is a big part of our job. While we may have focused in the past on working with our attorneys or professional development teams, it is now time to make sure we have strong relationships with our IT departments. As librarians, we often find ourselves uniquely positioned to understand the needs of end users and to be the ones who communicate those needs with our vendors or technical partners. Often, we become the go-between. Rather than rejecting this role or, at worst, ignoring it, seize this opportunity to be a trusted, knowledgeable advisor. You can and should be at the forefront of these technologies, which are coming at us fast and furiously, whether we want them or not.

Association Participation

Participating in professional development associations can be beneficial on many levels and is certainly a great way to become more of a technologist. Whether attending events, reading magazines, or listening to webinars, the goal is always to learn something new, develop an idea, and be exposed to a new concept or strategy.

Professional associations can also help us step outside our comfort zones and think of new, innovative ways to engage in our work. Professional associations such as the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), as well as the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) and the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) offer opportunities to enhance and expand your skill set and connections and can supplement the benefits of organizations that are purely library-focused.

A Focus on Tech

As the role of the law librarian has evolved, the need for understanding technology has only increased. Products are now implementing artificial intelligence and offering services that include data analytics components. Understanding how these platforms work and what data they are leveraging is key to helping with successful deployment and adoption of these technologies. As a librarian, you can play a key role as you are uniquely positioned to understand the content, the use cases, and what attorneys are looking for, and you are able to communicate and collaborate with the attorneys. If your firm wants to integrate a product into your internal system, you bring the understanding of which practice groups would use the tool and how. Ask yourself: How does this content help your attorneys? What are the attorneys’ pain points and how can this assist in their tasks? How could this service integrate with your internal systems? Having a basic knowledge of some key IT concepts will help you. While you may not need to know how to code, you may very well need to understand what the implications are for using a service hosted in the cloud versus on-premises. Do you understand the basic concepts of how to feed services to an internal system? Key to your success in this process is building relationships and partnering with people within your organization’s IT department. Sometimes it can be intimidating, and you may feel like they are speaking a different language. Take the time to find a buddy or someone in Desktop Engineering, Applications Development, or another department who you can turn to. Do some research on your own and get familiar with terms or processes. Perhaps you have a vendor or rep who can walk you through the back ends of how some systems work. Taking the time to ask thoughtful questions will pay off in the long run. You don’t need to know the nitty-gritty technical details, but you do need to understand the basic premises. You can explain why it’s needed, but you will need to work with IT to understand how it works.

Lessons Learned

As a participant in ILTA, you gain access to a wealth of programs, literature, discussion boards, and of course the major annual conference, ILTACON. Over the past few years, as my own involvement in ILTA has increased, I’ve seen a growth in programs that are more and more relevant to law librarians and those who specialize in knowledge management. I see this as being both a reflection of ILTA adapting to the needs of its audience and a natural result of our changing roles. Amy Eaton, director of library & research services at Perkins Coie LLP, has attended ILTACON for the past few years. She notes that after both conferences she was able to bring back ideas or work process changes that she and her staff could almost immediately implement in their department. She notes, “The 2018 keynote by Lisa Bodell inspired us to conduct a Kill a Stupid Rule session at our next staff retreat. We were able to eliminate multiple processes and simplify others, creating a more efficient workflow, allowing us to centralize work in a single location with no increase in staffing. I also attended a presentation by Meredith Williams-Range on leveraging technology to harness data and drive efficiency in your firm. Her presentation prompted us to rethink how we present resources to attorneys and what we could do to increase adoption of the resources we have using existing technology, such as our integrated library system (ILS).” These are just a few examples of how programming from an outside association can greatly impact law firm libraries by helping them improve their workflows and processes. The traditional role of the law librarian has changed over the years, agrees Loyita Worley, director of EMEA library operations for Reed Smith. Worley explains, “As competition for business grows and the firms themselves become more client-focused and tech aware, our roles too have changed. The challenge now is very much on information and how we facilitate making this available to our lawyers. This requires different skills and knowledge within areas where we may not previously have been involved—legal tech being a prime example.” Being involved in technical associations such as ILTA has provided Worley and her team with better awareness of the tools and applications available in the market and helped her see how those tools could potentially be applied to challenges within their own environment. Engaging with these outside associations “provides the opportunity of networking, making connections, and sharing ideas with people who have experience using some of these tools or who are facing the same challenges as us. It is a sure-fire way to broaden your professional horizons and help develop the knowledge you need to take services to the next level.”

Going Forward

In short, embrace the change. As librarians we are on the front lines with knowledge management, artificial intelligence, and data analytics. Our vendors and our attorneys are pushing us to use these platforms. One of the best relationships I have developed in my time at my firm is with a member of our applications development team.

Moving into a more tech-focused role, I was suddenly overwhelmed with being in meetings with application developers and engineers. I had a seat at the table, but wasn’t sure how to contribute and constantly worried I was just there providing the fluff, not the substance, for the projects we were working on. Gaining confidence in my technical knowledge, through self-education and by participating in outside associations, allowed me to realize that my work as part of these teams was just as important. I didn’t need to understand all the details, just as they didn’t need to understand all the legal terminology. Communication was key, and I frequently found myself in high level meetings being the one who could actually be the “translator” between the attorneys and the technologists. I have my “phone a friend” lifeline

when I need a quick explanation of how a back-end system works, or how a change we are contemplating in one of our systems may have trickle-down effects. Legal tech will continue to have a significant impact on the work of law librarians, and it will be interesting to see what comes next. This represents a huge opportunity for us to expand our skill sets, grow our professional networks, and be at the forefront of bringing new, next-generation services to our firms.


Stephanie Godley
Director of Knowledge Management and Library Services
Ropes & Gray LLP
Boston, MA

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